One thing that connects most Caribbean islands (besides the incredible weather) is a strong religious influence. You probably won’t notice it while visiting on a casual vacation or day in port. But once you live on an island, the importance of church in islanders’ lives becomes readily apparent.
So I wasn’t very surprised when I noticed a very large (and new) sign erected near one of my rock’s busy intersections. The headline boldly proclaiming “God’s Ten Commandments” in (what else) shiny gold letters. Actually, it’s not just one sign but a pair of matching billboards flanking the roadway which also happens to be one of the islands two main thoroughfares. Strategic placement. From an advertising standpoint, I must applaud this move. Well done, religious island entity, whoever you are!
And recently, when I once again drove past the pair of religious reminders (their sentiment contrasting nicely with the sound of empty wine and beer bottles rolling around in the back of my truck – don’t judge, it was recycling day), it got me thinking about what an Island Girl’s Commandments might be. Would there be the traditional 10? Doubtful, since we don’t really like to follow rules. But if we did have any, what would such guidelines look like?
If you happen to worship at the altar of sunshine and umbrella drinks (as I do), here are a few I came up with. (Tip: These will be infinitely more dramatic if you imagine them being read like this. Bonus points if you know this film. Extra bonus points if you’ve watched the whole four hours of Charlton Heston’s buff, topless bounty. The look that has inspired Island Players ever since? Possibly.)
Thou Shall Keep Thy Hair Moisturized
Long, luscious locks and life on an island are two things that don’t necessarily go together. Yet flowing, naturally highlighted hair is what many Island Girls crave. Well, at least this one. After all, nothing looks quite as sexy as a head full of long tousled beach curls blowing in the breeze. Amiright? Sadly, maintaining healthy hair while living in the tropics is especially difficult. Especially if you also color your hair…like me. Hello grey streaks, I’m talking to you when I say “I hate you.”
Unfortunately, ignoring your tresses is an invitation to be rocking that Annie Lennox cropped do very, very quickly. To keep your locks lush and flowing, you must be vigilant in this fight! Daily conditioner, weekly deep conditioning treatments, regular salon appointments. Do it all. Then do it again. And don’t forget to slather on that conditioner before you hit the waves. Mother Ocean may give us many wonderful things, but good hair isn’t one of them. You’ve been warned.
Thou Shall Wear Sunscreen
What’s not to love about a year-round climate that practically demands you spend copious amounts of time in the sunshine on or near the water? And who’s going to complain about having a sun-kissed skin tone, one that positively screams “I live in the tropics?!?!” (especially when one returns to the mainland. In winter.) Yes, despite the admonitions from every dermatologist on the globe, most Island Girls go through an initial phase of sun worshipping in some form. Whether it’s baking by the pool or getting a tan while frolicking on the beach, we’ve all been there and done that. It’s all part of the amazing island lifestyle.
But you know what is not so amazing? Sun damage. It is real and it will eventually make you look like your grandmother’s alligator handbag. Don’t believe me? Just look around at those Island Girls a few decades older than you. The ones who eschewed anything with SPF in their formative rock years. They’re easy to spot. They’ll be the ones sporting skin in an unnatural shade of brown with the texture of a wrinkled paper bag. If what you see doesn’t have you desperately reaching for that sunblock 50 and slathering it on every inch of sun-exposed skin, then I’m afraid nothing else will. Well, except one thing. Skin cancer. And that’s no joke.
Thou Shall Lose Thy Fear Of Bugs
Yes, flying cockroaches are as hideous as they sound. Scorpions scurrying across your bedroom floor are just plain nasty. And if you’re truly unlucky (like some Island Girls in far-flung locales like the Seychelles), you’ll even get to deal with centipedes as large as your hand. Ick. Ick. And triple Ick. The unspoken truth about island life is that it includes bugs. Of all shapes and sizes.
If you’re hoping to live on a rock for any length of time longer than a vacation, you’re going to have to get over your fear of these creepy crawlies. Because eventually you will have to dispatch one to eternal salvation on your own. Whether you use a machete or flip-flop will depend on your circumstances and the bug in question. But you will have to go solo on this at some point. No Island Girl worth her salt remains afraid of bugs for long. You may not like them, but killing them on your own becomes a necessary life skill. Just be careful with that machete. After all, you’re not Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. (And, yes, movie buffs, I know she technically used a sword, but you get the idea.)
Thou Shall Build Up Thy Reserve Of Patience
Island life is not for those with the temperament of a two-year-old child. There will be very long lines virtually everywhere. You will also be confronted with bureaucracy that changes by the day and is dependent on who is working the counter at any given moment. On any given day, you’ll find yourself in situations that defy explanation (yes, I’m talking to you immigration lady). If you approach these encounters by doing any of the following (a) yelling, (b) saying something sarcastic or (c) body language that conveys anything other than gratefulness toward the object of your disdain, then I must be the bearer of some very bad news – you are not long for island life.
The truth is, no matter how arcane, ridiculous or nonsensical you find a particular situation, the only correct way to approach it (at least if you hope to get anything accomplished) is with supreme patience. Smile, nod and verbally agree with whatever craziness you’re being told. Then thank the person profusely and calmly depart without letting any of your true feelings or frustrations show. Feel free to later vent away to your partner as you walk back to your car, to your friend via WhatsApp or the total stranger sitting next to you at the nearest bar you can find (yes, a drink helps dull the pain). But just remember, tomorrow you’re going back to do it all again. Try to keep smiling.
Thou Shall Learn To Roll With All Things
The maintenance guy who promised he’d pass by around 10 to look at your non-working toilet? A grumpy government clerk who promised to call when your permit was ready? Your trusted mechanic who asked you to drop off your car on Monday and promised he’d have it done by Wednesday? These three things all have something in common. They will not happen as planned. Ever. It is an island fact of life.
If you want your Island Girl tenure to stretch beyond a few months, you have to accept that things work on island time in the tropics. And by that I mean that nobody has any idea when/if/how things will get done on a rock. But they do. Get done, that is. It just won’t be on YOUR schedule.
Same goes for food in the grocery stores. Making a shopping list might make you feel organized and accomplished. But when you get to the store and discover the shelves depleted of anything fresh, that well-organized list suddenly becomes a reminder of just how NOT in control you really are here. You need to accept this. Then go to the beach.
Thou Shall Not Engage In Island Gossip
Caribbean islands are very small places. And even though every island’s population is segmented into distinct groups that don’t necessarily overlap each other, you will still get to know a lot of people. And they will know you, whether you ever meet them. Or not. And you will see these people often. At the grocery store. Walking down the main street in town. At the restaurant you’ve chosen for dinner. This can’t be helped, it is what happens when you choose to live on a tiny island floating in the sea. But you know what can be helped? Spreading island gossip.
I’m not sure why (perhaps it is the heat? the lack of other things to do?), but The Coconut Telegraph is a very popular activity on every Caribbean rock. And it works with alarming efficiency. (If only my internet connection were so fast and reliable!) Which means that the snide comment you make about a fellow island dweller will be repeated (and repeated again) until, eventually, it reaches the ear of your targeted ire. Whether what they hear resembles what you uttered in a careless moment of wine-fueled commentary on the beach is anyone’s guess. But usually not. And brace yourself for when you hear some fantastical rumor about yourself. Which you will.
It all goes to show…island gossip is a no-win situation. So try not to do it. But if you must (and if we’re being completely honest, we all must at some point), at least choose your gossiping partners carefully. The best Island Girlfriends are the ones who can keep their mouths shut. Just sayin’.
Thou Shall Not Obsess About Thy Body Shape
Ok, let’s be totally honest here. There will be a variety of sizes, shapes and ages on every island. After all, a consistent influx of 20 something girls who could be mistaken for bikini models is pretty standard for every tropical rock. And, as you might expect, this does nothing to boost the confidence of the more, uh, mature Island Girl. An added bonus? You may also change while you live on a rock. While you may have arrived as said 20-something bikini model, eventually all those umbrella drinks and bags of chips you down during a beach day take their toll. Also, there’s simple aging. You know, when your metabolism seems to decrease as your age digits increase? The gods have a twisted sense of humor.
Still, you have chosen to live in a place where bikinis are de rigueur, and there will be moments when you just don’t feel confident in yours (bikini or body). At this point, you have two options. Own your current look and wear a suit that flatters your figure (no, not every booty was made for a cheeky Brazilian bottom despite what the salesgirl in the surf shop might tell you) or throw on a cute cover-up and channel your inner St. Barths yachtie diva.
The one option NOT on the table? Bitching about your current circumstances. If you’re not happy with your shape, head to the gym. Skip the piña coladas. Try fruit instead of Fritos. If you don’t want to make any of those hard choices, then breathe in, accept and get on with your life. Besides, your real girlfriends don’t care what you look like in a swimsuit, they just want to hang out with your sunny personality, drink prosecco and make great memories. So get on with it…making great memories, that is.
After all, you could still be back in Chicago or Seattle or Boston, wrapped in layers of clothing, staring at the tropical island wallpaper on your computer screen. But you’re not. You’re an Island Girl now. So be the badass you are and make the most of it.
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Also published on Medium.